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Monday, May 3, 2021

‘The Fight has to Change’: Why Ferguson Activists Ditched Police Reform

Posted By on Mon, May 3, 2021 at 11:44 AM

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‘I will never see your complaint’
click to enlarge At a raucous public hearing on Jan. 28, 2015, dozens of officers stood in unison to oppose the civilian oversight measure, calling it “anti-police” legislation. At one point, a scuffle broke out after the union business manager allegedly pushed a Black woman, breaking her glasses. Activist Kayla Reed, at right of the man in the red shirt, was urging people to get back to their seats so the meeting wouldn’t be cut short, she said. - WILEY PRICE/ST. LOUIS AMERICAN
  • WILEY PRICE/ST. LOUIS AMERICAN
  • At a raucous public hearing on Jan. 28, 2015, dozens of officers stood in unison to oppose the civilian oversight measure, calling it “anti-police” legislation. At one point, a scuffle broke out after the union business manager allegedly pushed a Black woman, breaking her glasses. Activist Kayla Reed, at right of the man in the red shirt, was urging people to get back to their seats so the meeting wouldn’t be cut short, she said.

When the architects drew up the Civilian Oversight Board, they had a principal mission: to ensure the department was properly investigating complaints about police misconduct and excessive use of force that citizens regularly file.

It’s mostly unable to do that because the Police Department has not followed protocols outlined in the ordinance.

If people feel mistreated by a St. Louis police officer, the ordinance stated that they could find a “joint civilian complaint form” at all police facilities, which would be used by the Police Department and the board.

The police had only been providing people with an Internal Affairs Division complaint form, which stays at the Police Department.

By not using the proper form, the Police Department has effectively thwarted the intent of the oversight law. “I will never see your complaint,” said Taylor-Riley, the board’s commissioner.

The department did not respond to requests to comment for this story. The department did tell The Missouri Independent and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that it does not track the overall number of complaints.

However, there’s a way to get an idea of how many are actually filed. When a person fills out a joint civilian complaint form, a copy goes to both the Police Department and the Civilian Oversight Board, where each is stamped with case numbers from both entities. So, for example, the last complaint the board received in 2016 had the case numbers: COB 16-0017 and IAD 16-0407. That suggests it was the 17th case of the year for the board and the 407th case handled by the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division.

Using that method, from 2016 through 2019, the board saw a total of 125 cases; the Police Department received more than 3,000 complaints in that time.

Put another way, the oversight board reviewed less than 5% of residents’ complaints against St. Louis police.

In that first executive order, Jones not only demanded to get all the withheld complaints, but she also took steps to ensure that the Police Department followed the law. She ordered the Police Department to use the joint civilian complaint form that the bill had called for, effective immediately.

In a report obtained by The Missouri Independent and Reveal, the Civilian Oversight Board found that the vast majority of complaints it has received are made by Black men ages 25 to 49 against white officers. The board found that the Police Department has been interviewing fewer numbers of complainants and officers in recent years.

In 2019, the board received 25 complaints. Of those complaints, the police interviewed only one person. Board members are supposed to be invited to these interviews, but the board says members weren’t invited to that interview.

In the past, when board members were able to sit in on the department’s interviews with the complainants, they were able to change the tone of the interviews, said John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression, who also helped write the bill that created the board.

“Early on, they were able to see that the police were treating complainants more like they were suspects and interrogating them to poke holes in their story, instead of being more receptive,” Chasnoff said.

Demands for police accountability
click to enlarge Activists led a “funeral march” down Mayor Francis Slay’s street in South St. Louis early on the morning of Feb. 9, 2015, and left a cardboard coffin on his doorstep. They also stuck signs in his yard with the names of those recently shot and killed by St. Louis city police, along with another sign that said, “They tried to bury us but didn’t know we are seeds.” Among their demands for Slay was passage of the civilian oversight legislation. See a video of the protest. - REBECCA RIVAS/MISSOURI INDEPENDENT
  • REBECCA RIVAS/MISSOURI INDEPENDENT
  • Activists led a “funeral march” down Mayor Francis Slay’s street in South St. Louis early on the morning of Feb. 9, 2015, and left a cardboard coffin on his doorstep. They also stuck signs in his yard with the names of those recently shot and killed by St. Louis city police, along with another sign that said, “They tried to bury us but didn’t know we are seeds.” Among their demands for Slay was passage of the civilian oversight legislation. See a video of the protest.

Many activists saw the board’s true potential as a check against police’s self-investigations into police shootings. The endeavor has been a total failure in that regard.

From 2014 through 2020, there were 56 cases in which a city officer shot someone in the line of duty, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

Police killed 30 of those people. Not a single one of those shootings has made it to the Civilian Oversight Board in the nearly five years it’s been up and running.

When a shooting like this happens, the Police Department’s Force Investigation Unit opens an investigation. The civilian board was supposed to review the unit’s investigation once it’s completed. Did the police talk to all the witnesses? Is all of the evidence there?

But right now, the investigations aren’t getting past Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, the city’s top prosecutor and one of the leading criminal justice reform prosecutors in the country.

She can rarely close investigations, she said, because some of the cases she receives from the Police Department are so incomplete.

She says the investigations first need to be moved out of the Police Department and into an investigative unit in her office. At that point, her office would prepare a report for the civilian board and the public.

“Where is it in our criminal justice system that a defendant commits a crime and all his friends, whether they’re well meaning or not, get to investigate whether they’re going to hold them accountable?” Gardner said.

In 2017, she told the Board of Aldermen that members of the Force Investigations Unit had instructed an officer not to speak with her prosecutors about a shooting case. Additionally, one of the unit’s members told prosecutors that he had a “duty” to protect his fellow officers, Gardner said.

Oftentimes when there’s a shooting, Gardner said in an interview, her office gets notified hours after the officer’s union attorney is called.

“The police union lawyer is already on the scene before the Circuit Attorney’s Office,” Gardner said. “That is not appropriate.”

That’s why Gardner has been pushing for legislation to establish an independent investigative unit within her office, to give prosecutors more authority at the crime scenes in these cases. The new unit would take officer-involved shooting investigations completely out of the Police Department.

“The police cannot investigate themselves,” she said.

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